We all understand confirmation bias: our mental prejudice to seek information that confirms our existing beliefs. There are ways to work against this that require intentionality and social organization that force people to confront information and experiences that collide with their existing notions, however current trends seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Contemporary information technologies (social media, smartphone news apps, etc.) do everything to reinforce confirmation bias and its worst aspects. I noticed this in myself when my interest in politics had become an all-encompassing form of dogmatism that was bolstered by my Facebook newsfeed. Politics was my focus of choice, but it could easily be swapped out for any other interest: sports, cooking, you name it.
These information sources are not neutral purveyors of content. These media corporations and tech companies have a stake in keeping you clicking and scrolling; it’s how they make money. These information sources don’t care if you’re well-rounded, informed, or healthy, they care only that you keep clicking and scrolling, so they can toss you in a marketable pool and sell you things from their advertisers. There is nothing profound about this analysis. Most of us already understand this.
However, even as we understand this, we still play into the worst distortions of this information conveyor belt. I, for instance, felt trapped by Facebook’s addictive qualities. I would scroll through various posts on my newsfeed, and in an almost unconscious manner, toss out my like reaction, angry reaction, or other reaction. A smaller diversity of posts began to dominate my news feed and my mental life became dominated by shitty political analysis and click-bait headlines. I continued to go along. It wasn’t until I no longer had Wi-Fi at home that I really noticed how prevalent this mode of activity and thinking had become.
Just as the industrial revolution pushed our bodies to perform specialized tasks, this information revolution is pushing our minds to become focused on specialized topics, and commodifiable desires. This isn’t a one-sided trend of total coercion, but neither was the trend of industrialism, choice has a major role in both of these cases. We choose to read certain posts, like a certain picture, and read a certain article. On the flipside, Facebook quantifies your activity, works to understand the pattern, and acts to reaffirm the pattern. The goal isn’t a conspiratorial method of brainwashing, the truth is much less sexy and much more obvious, these information sources wish monetize your activity. They don’t care what your activity is, as long as it creates a profit for the corporation. This capitalist action isn’t immoral or nefarious, it is just another example of the single-minded pursuit of profit that dominates our economic system.
So you say: so what, why should we care? You don’t have to care, but there are multiple reasons to care. The liberals out there are writing books on how it harms our democratic civility as if this hasn’t been under attack since the creation of democracy. The real reason I care is for my well-being. I wasn’t in a good mental state constantly being inundated with terrible political news that nurtured stress and pessimism. Further, I was becoming single-minded, which harmed my creativity and ingenuity in all areas of life, even the political area that had become dominant. Further, with out a diverse set of experiences and bases of knowledge our relation to others is hampered. It is harder to understand the ideas and experiences of people around you. This is extremely isolating and depressing. I fear the trend of declining empathy will only increase with these new information technologies. How ironic it is that in the era in which more information than ever is available, our mindset is becoming narrower.